Lewis Hamilton has completed the first hat-trick of race victories in his Formula One career, driving untroubled to head a Mercedes one-two at the Chinese Grand Prix and closing in on Nico Rosberg’s Championship lead, whilst Fernando Alonso completed the podium.
In a bizarre footnote, due to a chequered flag marshalling error, the race rest was declared officially after 54 of the 56 laps.
The 25th win of Hamilton’s career sees him join Mercedes team boss, Niki Lauda and two-time World Champion Briton Jim Clark at eighth in all-time Grand Prix victories.
Nico Rosberg still leads the championship, but his lead is down to just four points after the four long haul fly-away races.
The other main talking point of the race was Sebastian Vettel’s refusal to obey a team order from Red Bull management to let his team mate Daniel Ricciardo through. Unlike Bahrain, where the Australian was on the faster tyre compound, here they were on a similar plan, albeit Vettel’s tyres were four laps older. Ricciardo was simply faster and after Vettel had said it was “Tough Luck” on Ricciardo as he had no intention of moving over, the Australian passed him anyway, Vettel and the team saying that the German yielded the place to his team mate eventually. Ricciardo said he wasn’t sure whether he was being given the place or not, but had more speed.
Unlike Bahrain, this weekend’s race in Shanghai was dominated from qualifying to finish line by Hamilton. A perfect start from pole, as the cars behind battled and came together saw him establish a three second lead in as many laps, increasing that to ten seconds before the first set of pit stops and eventually taking victory by 19 seconds. This came despite a difficult practice day on Friday when Hamilton appeared very unhappy with the car’s handling.
“I was racing myself,” said Hamilton on the podium.
“After Practice 2 I had to make a lot of changes to the car in anticipation of today,” said Hamilton. “I was able to look after the tyres. I went quite a lot longer than I’d planned. I’m really happy.
“This team is on a roll. We are going to keep pushing and keep moving forwards, developing the engine and the car. I hope it continues.”
On the subject of equalling Lauda and Clark today he said, ” I come from Stevenage and my Dad and my family did so much to get me here. Now I’m with the greats; I hope my Dad is proud and my family is proud.”
Behind, though, was a race of attrition that initially looked to see a split between two and three stops. However, with the medium tyre offering a life-span of around twenty laps much of the field was able to complete the race in two stops.
From the start, a trio of quick starts from Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa saw a bottleneck in to the long first corner, with last year’s Ferrari team-mates having a heavy clash of wheels and lucky to escape any damage.
With Nico Rosberg making a slow start, the German was in amongst the pack as the long left-hander approached 380 metres after the start line. As the Alonso/Massa tangle happened in front, there was a similar incident between Valtteri Bottas and Rosberg with remarkably no damage between the four drivers. Rosberg dropped to sixth at the end of Lap 1.
The first set of pit-stops – where most runners went to the medium compound tyres – turned the race on its head, as the early stopping Alonso, then in third position, was able to take second place from Vettel with a strategy undercut; the German pitted a lap later. Behind, Ricciardo and Rosberg opted to stay out later, with Rosberg’s stop a lap later resulting in a 8.6s gap to the cars ahead.
Ricciardo, meanwhile, looked to stretch out his first stint and allow for a two-stop race, pitting four laps after Alonso.
Hamilton, too, managed a long first stint, running until the eighteenth lap, seven longer than Alonso, before the switch to the medium tyre. He returned to the circuit with a decreased but still substantial lead of four seconds and from there re-established a ten second lead in nine laps.
The action, though, came from behind as Vettel dropped back from Alonso and in to the clutches of the quickly approaching Rosberg. From over eight seconds behind, Rosberg caught his compatriot at a second a lap, before using the DRS-zone to make a late move up the inside at the hairpin penultimate corner.
Vettel’s poor stint on the medium tyres was then compounded as Ricciardo approached. The ‘team leader’ was then told, for the second time in as many races, to “let Daniel through.” However, unlike Bahrain where Vettel moved swiftly to the outside of the track, he questioned Ricciardo’s strategy and upon learning they were both on the medium tyre, Vettel responded: “Tough luck.”
A lap later and Ricciardo made the move in to turn one, Vettel apparently succumbing to the managements orders.
Ahead, Rosberg had now set about catching Alonso for third place and after closing to within half a second, the Spaniard pitted for his second and final stop. With Rosberg following suit four laps later, the Ferrari had made use of its new tyres and opened a four second lead to the Mercedes.
But that buffer was quickly diminished as Rosberg set about taking two seconds on the race’s previous fastest lap and cruising past Alonso on the long run down to the penultimate corner.
From there the third Mercedes one-two of the season was untroubled, only that of Rosberg’s Championship lead was. The gap between the two is now four points – still in favour of Rosberg – but Hamilton’s form is ominous.
As the Formula One paddock enters the European leg of the season, Mercedes hold a 97 point lead over Red Bull in the Constructors’ Championship. Red Bull boss Christian Horner said after the race that they would push hard to close the gap, but admitted that they cannot allow the Mercedes to gain much more ground or it will be too late to rescue the championship.
With Ricciardo closing on Alonso but unable to trouble him, the Ferrari driver earned his best result of the season, pleasing Luce Di Montezemolo and Marco Mattiaci.
The Red Bull battle was therefore won by Ricciardo, heading Vettel home by 24 seconds and dealing another hammer blow to his four-time World Champion team-mate, who admitted that he wasn’t fast enough today.
“There was no point holding him back further. He was quite a lot quicker,” said Vettel. “At that stage we were on different strategies and once I was told that I decided to let him go and anyway I could not hold him back any more.”
Nico Hulkenberg drove a quiet race to another impressive sixth place, battling until the last lap with Bottas for Williams. The Grove squad had looked set for a Sunday afternoon with more fortune as Massa made a strong start to sit sixth in the opening stint, only for a slow pit-stop, caused first by a lack of rear tyres at the ready and then with a sticking rear-left tyre caused by the collision with Alonso on the opening lap.
The Brazilian lost thirty seconds and from there could only manage fifteenth place.
Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, Race, 56 Laps
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1h36m52.810s
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes +18.686s
3. Fernando Alonso Ferrari +25.765s
4. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull +26.978s
5. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull +51.012s
6. Nico Hulkenberg Force India +57.581s
7. Valtteri Bottas Williams +58.145s
8. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari +1m23.990s
9. Sergio Perez Force India +1m26.489s
10. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso +1 lap
11. Jenson Button McLaren +1 lap
12. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso +1 lap
13. Kevin Magnussen McLaren +1 lap
14. Pastor Maldonado Lotus +1 lap
15. Felipe Massa Williams +1 lap
16. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber +1 lap
17. Kamui Kobayashi Caterham +1 lap
18. Jules Bianchi Marussia +1 lap
19. Max Chilton Marussia +2 laps
20. Marcus Ericsson Caterham +2 laps